Master of Deception

Wordsmith Roger Hobbs ’11 on the art of addictive fiction.

By Alex Blum ’14 | September 1, 2013

The New Yorker ad for Ghostman, Roger Hobbs’ new crime novel, features a paragraph-long excerpt. “These days I’m the best in the business. I can hit a bank and disappear in two days and no one would even know I was there,” it begins. At the bottom of the passage, a code scannable by smartphone is labeled “Scan to Keep Reading Ghostman.” A masked figure hovers in the background, his black gun pointing at the code.

It’s the classic drug dealer’s gambit: give the first hit for free, and they’ll come begging for more. Hobbs’ writing is particularly tailored for this approach. If literary fiction is like a psychedelic drug, he says, mystery is “the meth of the written word.”

Hobbs delivers quite the high. The book revolves around a career criminal known as “Jack.” (We never learn his real name, or much else about him, though Hobbs does mention that he reads Virgil when he’s not busy with crime.) Jack is a “ghostman,” helping people to disappear from the law. We find him in a race against the clock to track down dirty money, with plenty of violence and intrigue along the way. The prose is analytical and efficient, with plenty of detail and fascinating digressions into the nuts and bolts of criminal enterprise—the first couple of pages, for example, are devoted to an analysis of the three ways to rob a casino. In truth, Ghostman’s driving force is its plot. Hobbs describes it like this: “It’s not the journey and it’s not the destination that matters. It’s how motherfucking fast you’re going.”

If his book’s reception is any indication, Hobbs has succeeded in going pretty fast. The renowned New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praised Hobbs for his “sheer, masterly use of details,” and his “ability to immerse us in Jack’s unsavory world and to make the nefarious transactions he and his cohort engage in seem so palpably real.” The book made the New York Times bestseller list and will be translated into 20 different languages; Warner Bros. picked up the movie rights.

I met Hobbs at the Paradox Cafe in March (he still lives in southeast Portland). He wore a black suit and purple tie, something of a uniform for him. He has worn a suit every day since his high school years in Pennsylvania. He comes across as slightly ill-at-ease, with a sly wit and a high laugh that he deploys liberally. 

Hobbs relished the academic independence he found at Reed. He studied Latin with professor Sonia Sabnis [classics 2006–] and is particularly grateful to professor Robert Knapp [English 1974–], who taught him late middle ages literature and literary theory and served as his thesis adviser. “He is a mysterious old man who always knows more than he says,” Hobbs says. “He doesn’t feel the need to baby you along, but rather just reveal to you the mysteries of the universe.”

Hobbs wrote his thesis on the narratology of suspense in the mysteries of Edgar Allen Poe. Amazingly, he wrote Ghostman at the same time, working every day at his thesis desk in the library; he sent the manuscript to his agent on the day he graduated.

The two projects could not have been more different. His thesis involved chains of heterodiagenic focalization. His book was written for entertainment—pure and simple. 

Too many writing programs treat commercial fiction “like it’s trash,” he says. But commercial fiction, he believes, is in many ways closer to the purpose of language—to take an idea or experience and effectively communicate it to another. Fiction that’s designed to sell must be easily understandable by “as many others as possible,” he reasons. Compared to fiction that’s focused on truths that are personal to the writer, commercial fiction is a purer expression of language. I asked whether this approach didn’t risk diluting the ideas that could be communicated: Wouldn’t some truths be less understandable by many people, but more accurately representative of your own experience? “It’s noble to get it right at the expense of your audience, but that involves a selfishness I never had,” he said.

Hobbs is genuinely passionate about language. Writing, he says, “is an elegant blend of the ecstasy of creation, the empathy of the audience, and the ego of your power over them.”

He enjoyed that feeling from a young age, when he first started telling stories. “I knew that I wanted to lie to people for a living and be very comfortable doing it,” he says. “So I decided I could either be a politician, or a professor, or a writer. I picked the most honest of the three.” 

Jake is a master of deception—he uses fake passports, hair dye, and makeup to alter his identity—but Hobbs says his character is not a liar. Instead, he uses “deceptive truths” to mislead people. “Since he’s no one, he’s afforded the freedom to tell the honest truth,” Hobbs says. “You can still be an honest person and a professional liar . . . if there’s one great similarity between us, it’s that.”

After we finished the interview, we stepped onto the Paradox porch for cigarettes. A girl recognized him: “Aren’t you the guy who wrote the book?” She must not have heard about Ghostman’s success, though; she asked politely if it was doing well. Hobbs told her about Warner Bros. and the distribution contracts in 16 countries—an impressive resume, presented with perfect honesty.

“I straight-up don’t believe you,” she said.

Hobbs laughed his high laugh.

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music